Kumano Kodo: walking Japan’s ancient Camino

Autumn colours, hot springs, outstanding food and Japan's tallest waterfall make this ideal trekking season in Japan

 

At the end of Kumano Kodo, a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage trail through the Kii mountains of Japan, travellers are urged to step inside a huge camphor tree that the centuries have hollowed out and turned into a symbol of eternal renewal.

Locals believe that climbing through this sacred, moss-furred giant will revitalise anyone wearied in body or spirit by their journey. But for even the most jaded visitors, the view that lies ahead will do just as well.

Beyond Buddhist and Shinto temples that hug this hillside together, a vermillion pagoda soars above the trees, and high over its shoulder a ribbon of white water unfurls from the forest to a rocky pool far below; when the traveller finally turns – there is the Pacific Ocean gleaming at the other end of the valley.

The tallest waterfall in Japan, 133-metre-high Nachi-no-Otaki has been a place of nature worship since antiquity, and provides a fitting climax to a journey first undertaken by emperors, aristocrats seeking spiritual purification.

Over the centuries, Japanese commoners and then foreigners also took to Kumano Kodo, and word of its beauty and cultural richness spread until it became one of only two pilgrimage routes to be enshrined in Unesco’s list of world heritage sites.

The other is the Camino de Santiago ending near Spain’s Atlantic coast, and now tourism chiefs in Europe’s far west and Asia’s far east are working together to protect and promote these “pilgrimages of the rising and setting sun”.

Imperial capital

For those early pilgrims from Japan’s upper classes, following Kumano Kodo meant enduring an arduous month-long journey from the old imperial capital of Kyoto and doing without many accustomed luxuries.

Travellers of today need fear no such privations.

Kumano Kodo can be trekked in its entirety or tackled with the help of public or private transport and a boat ride on the scenic Kumano-gawa river, and walkers who want to lighten the load can send luggage ahead to each day’s destination.

Accommodation is available to suit every budget and taste, from sleeping on futons in Buddhist temples and traditional inns called ryokan, to comfortable modern hotels with “western-style” beds.

Pilgrims can also hit the trail each day knowing that it is likely to lead to some outstanding food, much of it plucked fresh from the Pacific, and to onsen hot spring baths that have soothed countless generations of tired wanderers.

When all this is swathed in the gold of Japan’s long and mild autumn, then the Camino faces stiff competition for the boot tracks of adventurous pilgrims.

For most Irish travellers the road to Kumano Kodo runs through Tokyo, to where British Airways and other major carriers operate daily connecting flights from Dublin.

Those who land already longing for the tranquil forests of Wakayama province, some 500km southwest of Tokyo, may have little appetite for this vast metropolis.

But as with all great cities there is a Tokyo for every mood: from the majestic Meiji imperial shrine to the manic energy of neon-drenched Shinjuku and Shibuya, and from stylish Ginza and Harujuku to the languid, low-rise Yanaka with its scores of tiny temples and artisan ateliers.

The vast, colour-coded metro system is efficient and easy to use, with all key signs and announcements in English, and a Pasmo public transport pass – similar to a Leap Card – is handy in Tokyo and several other cities.

A Japan Rail pass is equally useful for mainline travel around the country, including most services on the famous Shinkansen bullet trains, which swish from Tokyo to Kyoto in less than three hours.

Japan’s capital for more than a millennium until the late 19th century, Kyoto has grown into a modern metropolis while preserving the temples and sacred gardens of another age, and it makes a fascinating stop en route to Kumano Kodo.

From Kyoto it is a one-hour train ride to Osaka, from where the private Nankai railway line runs south towards Koyasan – one of Japan’s holiest mountains and the northernmost starting point for the pilgrimage.

With surprising speed, Osaka’s suburbs fall away and the tracks climb into the foothills of the Kii mountains, through forests now ablaze with autumn colour, to another Unesco world heritage site and the centre of Shingon Buddhism.

The esoteric sect was founded in Koyasan in the ninth century by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, who is said to have chosen this place for its beautiful and remote location amid eight peaks that reminded him of a lotus blossom.

Meditative air

Koyasan’s popularity has not destroyed its meditative air, and visitors can stroll around this complex of temples, pagodas and an extraordinary forest cemetery before retiring to one of 52 temples that welcome overnight guests.

Guests swap shoes for slippers at the entrance and are shown to simple rooms with sliding bamboo doors, soft tatami flooring and a low table where the monks serve shojin ryori – traditional Buddhist vegetarian food – and the local speciality of sesame tofu.

Afterwards, guests don their yukata robes and shuffle through the quiet corridors to the communal (but gender-segregated) baths, or reconnect with the modern world via temple wifi, though many happily unroll their futons for an early night.

A highlight of a visit to Koyasan comes at dawn, when guests are allowed to enter the temple’s prayer hall, glowing with candles and heavy with incense, to watch the golden-robed monks chant before a statue of Kobo Daishi.

Some temples also permit guests to witness a fire ceremony, during which a monk casts wooden votive tablets into a crackling blaze, to send the prayers that are written on them spiralling heavenwards in the smoke.

Koyasan is a suitably spiritual place to begin Kumano Kodo, but the so-called Kohechi route that originates here crosses the toughest terrain and is perhaps the least developed for tourists.

Most visitors take a train from Kyoto or Osaka to Kii-Tanabe station, from where buses depart for the 40-minute ride to Takijiri-oji, the traditional gateway to the remote mountains that pilgrims considered to be the home of the Kumano gods.

This is the start of the Nakahechi route, which crosses almost the entire Kii Peninsula on its way to the Kumano Sanzan – the collective name for the three grand shrines of Kumano Kodo.

Nakahechi gives walkers a vigorous welcome with several kilometres of steep hiking from the trailhead at Takihiri-Oji, before rewarding them with a rest stop that feels blessed by the local deities.

The Kiri-no-Sato lodge at Takahara offers a warm welcome, wonderful food and stunning views across the valley from its terrace and eight bedrooms – though visibility is changeable at a place whose name translates as “the village in the mist”.

The lodge also has indoor and outdoor onsen baths, giving some travellers their first experience of a cherished Japanese ritual.

In “spa” towns such as Kinosaki Onsen, an easy direct train ride from Kyoto, visitors stroll between bathhouses in their yukata and can stay in traditional ryokan like the 150-year-old Nishimuraya, which are renowned for their understated luxury and gourmet cuisine – such as the snow crab that are just coming into season.

Luxury is less pronounced on Kumano Kodo, but the ubiquity of onsen along the route makes it easy to start and finish a day of walking in a soothing hot spring bath, and to take another dip on the way if the body demands it.

At Yunomine Onsen, beside a pool in which locals cook eggs and vegetables in little nets, pilgrims will find a wooden cabin that encloses tiny Tsuboyu Onsen – the only Unesco-listed hot spring that where people are allowed to plunge in.

For almost 70km, the Nakahechi route crosses hills thick with cedar and bamboo, and villages set amid tea plantations, rice paddies and orchards of mandarins and a plum-like ume fruit; big black-and-yellow butterflies flit along the trail, monkeys dash through the forest and black kites wheel silently overhead.

Most of the route is relatively gentle, well tended and clearly marked with wooden signposts. There are also plenty of places to take a break, whether rest areas with benches and drinks, or wayside oji shrines dedicated to the “child deities” of Kumano, who are believed to protect and guide pilgrims.

Kumano Hongu Taisha – the first of the three grand shrines that travellers reach – is a complex of austere cedar pavilions where all the pilgrimage trails meet. Next comes Kumano Hayatama Taisha, where the Kumano-gawa river pours from the Kii mountains into the Pacific, and each February a fire festival sees torchbearers race down a perilous path from a hillside shrine overlooking the ocean.

Just 15km south is the easy-going town of Kii-Katsuura, where travellers can soak in onsen or the ocean and eat fresh tuna while contemplating the climax of Kumano Kodo – the ascent of the Daimon-zaka slope to Nachi Taisha shrine, its hollow camphor tree, and Japan’s highest waterfall erupting from the ancient forest.

GET THERE

Dan McLaughlin flew with British Airways (ba.com), which operates twice daily flights from London to Tokyo with connecting flights from Irish airports.

STAY

Tokyu Stay Ginza hotel in Tokyo (tokyustay.co.jp/e/hotel/GZ/) and Nishimuraya (nishimuraya.ne.jp/honkan/english/index.php) in Kinosaki Onsen.

Kumano Travel www.kumano-travel.com/ can arrange Kumano Kodo itineraries. A good resource for travel to Japan is www.jnto.go.jp/eng/; for Tokyo www.gotokyo.org/en/; and for Wakayama region en.visitwakayama.jp/.

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